In an interview this week with Knoxville News reporter Frank Munger, Tennessee GOP Senator (and Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee Ranking Member) Lamar Alexander expressed is frustration and displeasure with the exploding costs of the nuclear weapons enterprise:
One thing I want to make sure is we don’t start constructing the facility [the Uranium Processing Facility] until we have a design….I’ve pretty well had it with these big Energy Department projects that start out costing a billion dollars and end up costing $6 billion. We can’t afford that. And we can use the money much more wisely, either to reduce the debt or to pay for energy research.”
For a fuller understanding of why Alexander has “fully well had it”, let’s take a closer look (as we’ve done in the past) at the egregious cost growth experienced by many of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) major nuclear weapons-related construction projects. For the non-wonks, NNSA is the semi-autonomous agency within the Department of Energy responsible for the management and security of the nation’s nuclear weapons, nuclear nonproliferation, and naval reactor programs.
First up: the Uranium Processing Facility, or UPF, referenced by Alexander above (and located in his home state). The UPF would replace several old production facilities at the Y-12 National Security Complex, some of which date back to the World War II Manhattan Project. The purpose of the new facility is to handle highly enriched uranium to manufacture nuclear components for weapons, dismantle nuclear warheads, and recycle highly enriched uranium for use in naval reactors. In 2004, the cost of the facility was estimated to be between $600 million and $1.5 billion. The latest official estimate puts the cost at between $4.2 billion to $6.5 billion. However, indications are that the price tag will rise above the high-end estimate of $6.5 billion,
Next we have the now defunct Pit Disassembly and Conversion Facility, or PDCF, at the Savannah River site in South Carolina. The purpose of the facility was to disassemble nuclear weapons pits and convert plutonium metal into an oxide form that could be used as fuel in a commercial nuclear reactor. The original cost of the facility was estimated to be $1.4 billion, but had risen to $5 billion, or 3 times more than the original estimate. The project was terminated last year after NNSA spent $700 million on the facility over the previous 13 years.
Batting third is the (also now defunct) Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility, or CMRR-NF, at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The new facility intended to analyze samples of plutonium to support pit manufacturing and surveillance activities. Via our friends at the Union of Concerned Scientists, as of last year, the cost estimate for the CMRR-NF was $3.7 to $5.9 billion, reflecting a six- to nine-fold increase from the initial estimate of $660 million provided to Congress in 2004. This cost estimate is from 2010, when the design for CMRR was only 45% complete. As of early 2012, $350 million had been spent on the project and the design work was roughly 60-70% complete. It was at that point that NNSA announced that it was delaying the project by at least 5 years, since it turns out the facility isn’t needed now, if ever.
Fourth, we have the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility at Savannah River in South Carolina. The purpose of this facility is to blend plutonium oxide with uranium oxide to form MOX fuel assemblies that will be used as fuel in US commercial nuclear reactors. The original cost estimate for the building was $1.4 billion; it has now ballooned to approximately $8 billion and is over a decade behind schedule. Earlier this year, NNSA proposed to stop construction of the facility in order to conduct a review of the MOX program and consider alternatives.
So there you have it. And this doesn’t even include the B-61 life extension program, the cost of which has risen from an original estimate of around $4.5 billion to approximately $10 billion. Meanwhile, cheaper, less extravagant alternatives to extend the life of the weapon are available.
Unending cost growth. Debilitating schedule delays. Wasted taxpayer dollars. Overzealous project designs. Outdated mission requirements. All while more and more money continues to be poured into the weapons complex. It’s little wonder, then, that Sen. Alexander has fully well had it.